Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book review: "The Perfect Score Project" by Debbie Stier

To Debbie Stier, the SAT is spelled FUN.

You heard that right. The standardized test that so many high school students fear, curse and dread -- well, Stier loves. She says she found "joy" in taking it. 

And, after reading "The Perfect Score Project," I'm on Stier's side.

Stier is a mom who was concerned that her son would not get into a decent college -- or perhaps no college at all -- if he didn't score well on the SAT. So she set out to find what it takes to succeed on the famous, or infamous, test.

In one year, Stier took the SAT seven times. Her goal was to achieve a perfect score, hence the name of the book. To find out what it would take to get there, she sampled a gamut of test-preparation techniques, reading books, attending classes, even practicing zen-like relaxation techniques.


Even if you don't find the SAT fun, "The Perfect Score Project" is a great, enjoyable read. If you're a parent you'll empathize with Stier's struggles in getting her son to take the SAT seriously. And her own struggles in trying to raise her score are both amusing and engaging.


Sprinkled through the books are tips are how to do better on the SAT: Take the official study tests, know how to use your calculator well ahead of time, sit at the front of the room (to remove distractions) and remember that the hardest math questions are at the end of the section. Stiers discovers that many SAT prep books aren't that helpful -- and some give completely incorrect advice -- but after much trial and error she finds ones she likes.

Still, "The Perfect Score Project" is not so much about tips and tricks as about the curious world of people who find the SAT a delightful challenge. Stiers finds a subculture of adults who enjoy the challenge of the SAT, and she becomes one of them.

"How many other moms in their forties have discovered they love the SAT?" she wonders.  

It's enough to get me curious. My high school days ended decades ago, but I will soon be taking my first SAT.

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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Book review: "Two Wheels Through Terror" by Glen Heggstad

Come for the terrorism, stay for the bike ride.

That's my take-away from "Two Wheels Through Terror," a fascinating 2004 book by Glen Heggstad.

A couple of events led me to Heggstad's book. First, I was intrigued by an episode of the TV show "Locked Up Abroad that re-enacted Heggstad's one-month ordeal as a prisoner of the Colombian terrorist group ELN in 2001. Separately, after I posted a review of a survival-oriented book online, a reader responded with a recommendation for "Two Wheels Through Terror."

I didn't run out and grab the book immediately, but I'm glad I finally got around to reading it. It's an amazing story of Heggstad's eight-month motorcycle ride from California all the way to the southern tip of South America and back.

What really surprised me is that the kidnapping ordeal turned out to be only a small part of what makes the book interesting.

Going in, I figured I might just read the captivity story, and then skim the rest of the book. Because what could be so interesting about a guy riding a motorcycle for long stretches? Plenty, as it turns out.

Heggstad, a judo instructor, puts a lot of himself into this book, and he's an interesting character. He is disciplined, stubborn, smug, independent and curious. In the book, one of his friends calls Heggstad "selfish," which in some cases seems true, but at other times he shows a gift of introspection and compassion for others.

"This journey was never intended to prove something to anyone else," he writes. "My intention was to better understand the real world and my own character, as well as to explore my own limits."

I admire him for even considering doing this solo trip, and for the careful planning that went into it. He and a friend modified his motorcycle to prepare for the rough road conditions he would encounter. He sewed hidden money pockets into clothes and an extra set of keys was hidden inside his motorcycle, both of which came in handy.

Heggstad even prepared a fake "cover story" in case he ran into trouble (and, of course, he did)  He made a fake ID card saying he was journalist with a motorcycle magazine, and he was ready with a story that he had prostate cancer and couldn't survive without special medicine. The latter element was crucial to winning his release.

It's a quite readable book and it's enjoyable to live vicariously through his travels (even though many of the events weren't "enjoyable" to Heggstad).

His captivity takes place early in the book and by the time it was over I was hooked. Heggsted startles everyone by insisting on continuing his ride afterwards.  He ventures through soaking rainstorms, freezing temperatures, sweltering deserts. He suffers a concussion during one fall. He nearly gets attacked by angry farmers, and is stopped numerous times by corrupt cops looking for a payoff.

Typically, I find most books too wordy,  but "Two Wheels Through Terror" is different -- I would have liked to see more. While he offers up many interesting events, Heggstad sometimes only hints at other experiences, without going into detail. For instance, in Argentina, he refers vaguely to "my new friend in Argentina" -- apparently a woman he grows close to -- but offers little more.

Be sure to read the epilogue. It describes how Heggstad's time in captivity led to feuds and anger among his friends, as they disagreed about what to do.

In all, Heggstad's describes the trip as a life-changing experience.

"At times, at the peak of frustration that travelers in strange lands so often endure, just when I thought I couldn't stand anymore, it was the sparkling eyes of a laughing, soft-haired child, the kindness of an aging Indian woman, or the stunning splendor of the Andes that rocked my spirit and tugged me back eagerly into the wholesome embrace of a land of many faces."

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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Book review: "Confessions of Raving, Unconfined Nut"



I knew little about Paul Krassner before starting this book. But I was eager to learn the background of the man who People Magazine once called "The Father of the Underground Press," so into the rabbit hole I went.

Krassner is a comedian, satirist, and writer who was embedded in the counterculture antics of the 1960s. He was a close friend and co-writer with controversial comic Lenny Bruce. He hung out with , author Ken Kesey (famed for his LSD "acid test") and counterculture guru Timothy Leary. He joined with the members of the "Chicago 7" during the incendiary protests at the Democratic Convention in 1968. 

In “Confessions of Raving, Unconfined Nut,” Krassner's autobiography, he tells stories about all of those people, and more. 

Krassner challenged social standards on obscenity, pornography and political expression. He never met a rule that he didn’t feel should be challenged. The motto of his left-wing newspaper, "The Realist," was “Irreverence is our only sacred cow.”

I don’t envy Krassner’s life – he takes too many drugs and finds himself unable to maintain any stable relationships – but boy does he have some good stories to tell.

There’s this one, for instance, when he was hanging out with the drug-taking Lenny Bruce:

“When I first met him, he would shoot up in the hotel bathroom with the door closed, but now he just sat on his bed and casually fixed up while we were talking. That’s what we were doing one time when Lenny nodded out, the needle still stuck in his arm. Suddenly the phone rang and startled him. His arm flailed, and the hypodermic came flying across the room, hitting the wall like a dart just a few feet from the easy chair in which I uneasily sat.”

Then there was the day, during his time as editor of "The Realist," when two Catholic schoolgirls were interviewing him. Two women that worked at the newspaper walked in totally nude. "'Sorry to interrupt, Paul,” said Sheila, “but it’s time for our weekly orgy.’ The interviewers left in a hurry.'"
That was his one and only threesome, he said.

Krassner was most famous -- or infamous -- for a hoax. In 1967, he "revealed" supposedly unpublished excerpts from William Manchester's book on John F. Kennedy, "The Death of a President." In fact, it was all written by Krassner, including one passage which described Lyndon Johnson having sex with Kennedy's body. This earned Krassner a lot of hate mail. Which he loved. 

After the 1960s, with so many taboos being broken and boundaries challenged, Krassner's star faded. He found it harder to shock people. By the 1980s, he said, "Bad taste had become an industry."

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Monday, December 11, 2017

Book review: "So Close to Home" by Michael J. Tougias and Alison O'Leary

Michael Tougias is my favorite author. I've read three of his books -- "A Storm Too Soon," "Overboard," and "Fatal Forecast" -- and loved them all. In each, Tougias tells a riveting story of survival at sea.

So when I saw a new book by Tougias, "So Close to Home," I grabbed it.

In some ways, I was disappointed with this book, which is co-written by Alison O'Leary. There is less page-turning survival drama than in Tougias' past books.

On the other hand, there's a lot of good history, and that almost makes up for the lack of near-death moments.

In "So Close to Home," Tougias and O'Leary describe how German U-boats hunted and sank scores of ships in the Gulf of Mexico during World War II. This was a revelation to me -- I had no idea Nazi submarines were prowling right off the U.S. Gulf Coast.

"So Close to Home" tells its story mostly from three perspectives. First, there is 8-year-year Sonny Downs, who is traveling in 1942 with his parents and sister aboard a ship through the Gulf of Mexico as they return from a year in Central America. Sonny's father had worked as a mechanic at a banana plantation in Panama and Colombia.

Then there are two German submarine captains Harro Schacht and Erich Wurdemann, young Nazi sailors who are eager to sink as many American and Allied ships as they can.  It is Wurdemann's U-boat that sinks the ship carrying the Downs'.

The Downs story is a good one, and through them the authors manage to capture a lot of elements of this period. Sonny's parents knew that U-boats were prowling the area, and were frustrated that they were not allowed to get off the ship at an earlier stop. The dialog, though certainly recreated by Tougias and O'Leary, is believable.

For me, one of the most interesting -- and occasionally disturbing --aspects of the book was the authors' sympathetic portrayal of the Nazis. We see the U-boat captains from the perspective of the German side. When their torpedoes miss, it seems as if Tougias and O'Leary feel sorry for them, even though the failed attack meant that innocent people are not killed.

At one point, after Wurdermann's sub attempts to attack a convoy of ships, the defenders fight back and "the crew of U-506 had to endure an agonizing hour of being depth-charged." They had to "endure" being attacked? Oh, I'm sorry, are we disturbing you while you're trying to kill people?


That said, Tougias and O'Leary shed light on one astonishing episode where a U-boat sunk the British ship Laconia, and then spent days trying to help the survivors. Even as the Nazis were helping, Allied planes were attacking the submarines, forcing the Germans to submerge and abort rescue efforts.

It's a bizarre picture: Yes, the German showed much compassion toward the victims of the sinking -- but keep in mind that they were only victims because the Nazis has torpedoed the ship.

In the interesting Author's Notes section at the end of the book, O'Leary acknowledges being conflicted about portraying the Germans. "Can one both admire and despise the actions of the sub crew, or mourn for the dead and their fractured families while at the same time acknowledging that the sinking of ships is a common and accepted part of being at war?"

If you like this type of book, there are others that I would recommend. "All Brave Sailors" tells the amazing story of British sailors who survived a World War II attack by a German ship. "The Wolf"  recounts the little-known exploits of a German "commerce raider" ship during World War I.

And certainly, I would recommend any of these Michael Tougias books: "A Storm Too Soon," "Overboard," and "Fatal Forecast."

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Friday, October 27, 2017

Book review: "Stories from the Dirt" by John Long

There are some really good tales in "Stories from the Dirt" by John Long. There are also some really weak ones/

The stories are collected from throughout Long's life, many recounting adventures he's had as a rock climber, explorer and world traveler. He's had exotic, and sometime bizarre, experiences in Papua New Guinea, Norway, Indonesia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Baffin Island in the Arctic.

The best of Long's stories are riveting, engaging and surprising.
But others are just a puzzling waste of time. I finished them with a shrug of the shoulders, and the thought:  "What was the point of that?"

To save you time, I'm listing the stories in this book that are worth reading, with the best at the top. Don't bother with any that aren't listed.

1. "The Howliing"
2.  "Adios, Cueva Humboldt"
3. "Dream On, Irian Jaya"
4. "Ripcord"
5. "My Friend Phil"
6. "Tirada Los Tubos"
7. "Frankenstein"
8. "Meltdown"
9. "Bird's Boys"
10. "The Green Arch"

Long can be an excellent writer, using evocative, vivid language to describe scenes. For example, there's this moment when his snowmobile balks while on an ice sheet in Canada:

"The engine coughs, farts, then revs to a shrill din. Good thing, because I've just yanked the starter cord off the sprocket. Water and ice shoot from the speeding belt. Our feet churn in deep slush and my hands are numb from heaving on the cord. I would have ditched it long ago, but now we've sunk so deep we need the machine's velocity to pull us out. In a 40-foot circle, the ice has sagged, like a coin on loose sheets."

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Saturday, September 2, 2017

Moore League: Who has the best girls tennis website?

Girls tennis doesn't get a lot of love in the Moore League, at least in terms of quality websites or Internet pages. Unlike my previous looks at football and baseball, none of the girls tennis teams in the Moore League have booster club-run websites.  And the school-based web pages for the teams are relatively modest -- or non-existent.

Still, Wilson and Lakewood highs have put together decent, if unspectacular, pages. Their team pages have most of the most important elements -- a current schedule, names and contact information for the coaches, and results.  They received the highest ratings in this year's review. At the bottom end of the rankings was Cabrillo High. 


Note: Websites change. The items I cite in this article were there at the time of this article, but they may have changed by the time you get there. 


Lakewood

Grade B+
The Lancers' girls tennis page is simple but to the point. There is a current schedule, the names of two coaches, and a table with the won-loss record for the team back to 2005. It has email links to contact both coaches. It has current results on the page, something none of the other schools offer.

Supplementing that page, is a general tennis page, for both boys and girls. This has some out-of-date information, but also has bios of the coaches and some pictures.


The web presentation won't wow you, but it does convey much of information a parent or fan will be looking for.


Wilson

Grade: B
The girls tennis page for the Wilson Bruins isn't visually fancy, but it includes a link to the current schedule near the top of the page. Also prominently featured is the head coach's name and email
 address.


The page also has a link to MaxPreps for match results. It seems odd that the team is, in effect, out-sourcing the reporting of results, but it's better than not having any scores available at all.


There are several outdated elements on the page, including a link to now-past Summer Camp information at the very top.





Millkan
Grade: D
The Millikan girls tennis page is conflicted, alternately referring to the team as "Tennis - Women" and "Girls 2017 Tennis." Not only do the page creators appear to be unsure which gender term to use, they also seem to misunderstand what sport they're dealing with -- the most prominent item on the page refers to lacrosse ("Lacrosse is coming to Millikan"). 

The page does include a current schedule, but no results. There is an outdated link to summer camp and one other link to the "Athletic Packet." That's it. The name of the coach -- or anyone a parent could contact -- is not listed.  There are no pictures or roster.

There is a new Millikan Athletics website that seems to have some link to the school, but the girls tennis page there is blank.


Compton

Grade: D+
Go to the Compton High School page and click on athletics. Four sports are listed. Click on "Girls Tennis" and you'll get the team's current schedule. And that's it. That's the entire Compton girls tennis page.

There's no indication who the coach is, or any way to contact someone to ask for more information about the team.  There's no place for results. There are no pictures or roster.


At least the schedule is current.


Jordan

Grade: D-
Jordan doesn't have a page for its girl tennis team, though it does have one for its boys team.  It does have a general "tennis" page, but it has almost nothing on it. There's no schedule, no results, no roster. There is a link to a "Summer Tennis Schedule" that is seven years out of date. The name of the girls coach is remarkably well-hidden --  you'll only see it if you go to the end of a minute-and-a-half video with the ungrammatical title, "I wish I can play tennis."

Long Beach Poly

Grade: D-
The Poly girls tennis page comes oh so close to an F. Honestly, looking at this page, I began to question whether the Jackrabbits even have a girls tennis team (they do). The page contains a year-old schedule, but not a current one. The only thing that keeps this site from flunking is that it does show the name of the coach and a link for emailing him.  There is nothing else on the page.

Cabrillio

Grade: F
Cabrillo has a girls tennis team, but no website or web page.

See also:

Moore League showdown: Who has the best baseball website?



Sunday, August 27, 2017

Moore League: Who has the best football website?

By Scott Wilson

It's time for the 2017 football season! So let's kick off the action by looking at which Moore League team has the best football website.

It's no secret that there's a huge disparity in the quality of football in the Moore League. Long Beach Poly always dominates, while some of the other teams are happy just to get a win or two.

Fittingly, perhaps, Poly has the best football website in the league, but in this competition it shows some weaknesses. More surprising is that Lakewood, which has a strong football program that is often second in the league only to Poly, has a website that is an embarrassment to the team and the school.

To be clear, this is a rating of each team's "official" websites, whether created by the school or the booster club. Other sites, made by fans or professional networks, are not included.

Note: Websites change. The items I cite in this article were there at the time of this article, but they may have changed by the time you get there.

Long Beach Poly
Grade: B+
Poly's football website has a multitude of features and an attractive design. It has schedules for varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams. There is a full varsity roster. There's a list of the coaches, with brief biographical details on each. One page recounts the history of the program.

This is all good, but a closer look shows some flaws.

The 2017 schedule on the home page is labeled "2014." There's a junior varsity schedule even though Poly is not fielding a JV team this year. The latest "news" item is more than six months old. A "Merchandise" link leads to a dead-end Ebay page.

In short, this website gets a lot of things right, but it needs someone to go through and clean it up.

The football website is separate from school's, but there's a link from the school site that directs visitors to the right place. That's good.

Wilson
Grade: B-
Confusingly, Wilson football has two websites, with information on the team scattered across both.

The football page on the school website leads off with outdated summer program information, but it's immediately followed -- helpfully -- with the complete 2017 schedule. There's a mixed bag of other info on the page, including the the name and email address for the coach, results from last year, a link to a Google Doc that lists the football team's records and pictures of previous years' teams, but not this year's.

Oddly, there is no link to the other site, lbwilsonfootball.com, which is labeled  the "Official Home of Long Beach Bruins Football." This site contains a lot of information, but it's not well organized. There are brief bios of many of the coaches, but some some pages are blank and some links lead nowhere. There are no rosters.

The site appears to have been created by the Wilson boosters club, but it never directly says that.

Between the sites, a Wilson football fan can mostly find what he or she needs to know, but it's strange that you have to go two places.

Millikan
Grade: C
Anyone who goes to the Millikan High School website and looks at the football page will conclude that the Rams' football program was shut down after the 2016 season. The page contains only 2016 schedules, two photos and a video from 2015. Intriguingly, there is a link to something labeled as "Millikan Football Website," but if you click on it, you'll find an empty page with the notation, "The domain millikanfootball.org may be for sale."

So no more Millikan football?  Well, not so fast.

A Google search leads to another site, www.millikanfootball.com, apparently created by the Rams' Booster Club.  And it looks pretty good.

It has the 2017 varsity schedule right at the top; JV and freshman schedules are easily located, too. It has complete rosters for varsity, JV and freshman (pictures with the varsity), plus some good collections of pictures. Weirdly, all three "Coaches" pages (varsity, JV, frosh) are blank. Nor do the coaches' names, or contact info, appear anywhere else on the site.

It's a Jekyl and Hyde situation. If fans find the boosters' site first, they'll get most of what they want. But those who come to the school site first will go away with no idea that Millikan even has a football team.  Why not place a link on the school page to send people to the booster club page?

Cabrillo
Grade: D+
The Cabrillo football site is dominated by a lengthy biography of Coach George Richardson.  The 554-word bio isn't the only thing on the page -- no, there's also a large picture of Richardson at the top of the page. And to one side, there's a rotating slide show feature four more pictures of the coach, plus a picture of one of his high school football championship rings.

If you're a parent of a new player entering the program, it's nice to learn something about the coach. And with so many pictures of him, you'd have no excuses for not knowing what the coach looks like.

But hey, shouldn't the website have something about the, um,  team?  There is a link to the current schedule, in a PDF file. And at the bottom there's a link to a weirdly random collection of Cabrillo football pictures at the website MaxPreps. But none of those pictures are more recent than 2014.

There's no roster, no pictures of the current team, and no way to contact the coach. And no schedule for the JV or freshmen teams.

Compton
Grade: D
Go to the Compton High School website and click on "Athletics" and you'll be taken to a page that lists four sports. One of them is football. Click there and you get the current football schedule for the varsity, JV and freshman football teams. And that's it. That's the entire Compton football website.
At least the schedules are up to date and easy to find.  But there is not even the name of the coach or a way contact anyone with questions.

Jordan
Grade: D
The Jordan Panthers' football website consists of team photos of the varsity, JV and freshman teams, plus the name of the coach, and links to Word documents containing games schedules. The schedules are for the current season, but bizarrely, they omit the team's first four games.

Lakewood
Grade: F
The Lakewood Lancers football website is notable mostly for what it doesn't have. It doesn't have a
schedule of games. It doesn't have the coaches' names or contact information. It doesn't have rosters or a single picture.

Worst, the site doesn't have any current information -- it is filled with outdated announcements about summer camp and practices.

Ironically, the page does contain a mission statement for the program which promises "a high quality, competitive, dynamic football experience." Too bad they have no interest in a high-quality web page.

Update, Sept. 11, 2017: Since this article was written, the Lakewood football website has greatly improved.

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See also: Who has the best baseball website in the Moore League?